Pornhub is removing millions of user-uploaded videos. This action comes after a New York Times column accused the website of hosting sexual videos of underage and nonconsenting women. In response to the Times’ article, Visa and Mastercard cut ties with Pornhub, making it impossible for Pornhub to process payments other than through cryptocurrencies. 

This isn’t a debate over whether Pornhub is predatory. This is a question about what level of censorship power we want to give to payment processors. 

Sexual exploitation is a scourge on society that needs resources, education, victim support, and, when necessary, prosecution by responsible authorities to address. Visa and Mastercard are the wrong entities for addressing these problems. Visa and Mastercard do not have the skills, expertise, or position to determine complex issues of digital speech. Nuanced challenges to what content should exist online, and whether moderation policies will inadvertently punish otherwise marginalized voices, are issues that legal experts, human rights experts, lawmakers, and courts in the United States and abroad have been deeply considering for years. The truth is, navigating speech policies in a way that won’t shut down huge swaths of legitimate and worthy speech is hard. And it’s wrong that Visa and Mastercard have the power to—however clumsily—police speech online.

More importantly, as a society, we haven’t given Visa and Mastercard the authority to decide online speech cases. Those companies haven’t been elected or chosen by any electorate in any country. They are here enforcing speech rules that we haven’t adopted in the United Statesand, frankly, which would likely violate the U.S. Constitution if they were adopted. And sadly this is not the first time these companies’ decisions have jeopardized speech online.

Visa and Mastercard, acting together, are currently a chokepoint for online payments. This means that every arbitrary policy of these two companies can translate into rules that all websites who want to process payments must follow. Until and unless we create a diverse and robust market of online payment services not reliant on Visa and Mastercard, we have to deal with the fact that these two companies can dictate what you can read onlineor, in this case, what porn you’re allowed to watch. 

This isn’t a debate over whether Pornhub is predatory. This is a question about what level of censorship power we want to give to payment processors. Ironically, until now some of the most powerful critics of Pornhub’s policies have been the sex workers who also struggle daily with the credit card companies’ rejection of their sites. These companies’ power may be seen as a way to keep Pornhub to account today: but every other day, they are used to remove the financial freedom of independent sex workers, Pornhub’s competitors and potential alternatives to their near-monopoly power.

It’s a well-worn idea that pornography is one of the first reasons for the adoption of many new technologies. It’s also the domain where censors in the West often choose to flex their powers. Censorship, financial or not, of sex sites gets little push-back, and a great deal of public praise. It justifies the continuing concentration of free speech chokepoints—chokepoints that have always been used against LGBTQ speech, and women’s and minority rights—whenever a moral crusade needs an undemocratic hand. Any website or individual can find itself running afoul of Visa and Mastercard’s moral sensibilities and shut off from receiving online payments. We saw it with WikiLeaks. We saw it with the kink social network Fetlife. We saw it with the independent book publisher Smashwords. And we’ve seen it with countless sex workers.

Those praising Mastercard and Visa’s actions now should recognize that these censorship powers are more often used against those without power. That should scare all of us. We hope those praising the actions against Pornhub will work together to reduce these payment processors’ power over online life, rather than give justifications as to why they should keep it.

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